The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments
By Edited by James H. Charlesworth
Review Author: Edith Black
The brochure advertising this book announces that its publication is the “most important contribution to biblical studies of the decade.” The book, the result of 10 years of research by an international team of 60 scholars under the supervision of James Charlesworth, director of the International Center for the Study of Christian Origins at Duke University, fully lives up to this claim.
It is the first of a two-volume series that compiles in new English translations 52 extra-canonical Jewish and Jewish-Christian writings composed during the period between 300 B.C. and A.D. 200. This first volume comprises two types of these writings: (1) those called apocalyptic because they purport to record the dream or vision of a model figure that outlines the future course of world history and God’s judgment upon it; and (2) those called testaments because they purport to record the solemn last words of a model figure, instructing his followers in the way of righteousness, often in an apocalyptic fashion.
Each of the 28 documents published in this volume is not only translated in easy to read English suitable to the general reader but is also supplied with copious notes, at the bottom of the page to one’s great relief, suitable for the professional scholar. The notes give all the variant readings found in manuscripts other than the one used for the translation and explain the rationale behind the translation of difficult words and phrases. Introducing each document is a well-written introduction that makes available all necessary information about the document — its original language, provenance, main theological concepts, historical importance, and relationship to other biblical and pseudepigraphal books.
In his introduction for the general reader, Charlesworth explains how the search for documents known to exist from references to them in other writings has proceeded, and lists those documents still to be found. He gives a brief history of the development of the Old Testament canon from which the pseudepigraphal writings were excluded and explains how the pseudepigraphal writings differ from other collections of extra-canonical writings of the period, which he again helpfully lists.
He claims that the importance of this first comprehensive collection of pseudepigraphal writings should revise our understanding of Judaism as it was practiced during the inter-testamental period. For we now see that the strict legalism promoted by certain sects represented only one tendency. He also succinctly summarizes the four main theological concerns of these writings: (1) the origin of sin through the fall of the angels and the problem of innocent suffering; (2) the transcendence of God who is portrayed as acting in history no longer directly but through angelic intermediaries; (3) the coming advent of the Messiah, an ideal figure who will inaugurate perfect peace; and (4) the resurrection with picturesque descriptions of paradise on earth or in heaven.
The feature I find most interesting in these writings is their highly developed angelology which, in my opinion, constitutes a legitimate speculative attempt to explain what the Old Testament leaves unexplained — how the Devil could get into the Garden of Eden if there had been no prior fall. The New Testament gives only one brief hint of the answer in Jude’s description of “the angels that did not keep their own position but left their proper dwelling” (verse 6a) but seems to presume in its frequent references to “principalities and powers” and “gods of this world” what the pseudepigraphal writings spell out — that many angels under the leadership of Satan fell before the fall of man himself and in so doing corrupted the created order over which they were given spiritual jurisdiction.
These writings then have a timely relevance for believers like ourselves who must live with Darwin’s discovery of a fundamental law of nature that poses serious problems for the view that creation is the work of a good God — natural selection of the strong through predation of the weak (to produce a superior version of a species if not also, as he claimed, to produce a new species) — the very problem that precipitated Darwin’s own loss of faith. His discovery, amply confirmed by recent field studies of animal behavior, has forced upon us the recognition asserted, but not developed, in the New Testament (Rom. 8:19-22) that creation as well as man is in need of redemption (with the crucial qualification, of course, that rational man is responsible for his own evil acts while fallen angels are responsible for those of non-rational creatures).
I highly recommend this book both to the specialist and the non-specialist. It belongs in every good theological library.
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